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Interview

Art and Words are One

Interview with Roberta Allen
Donald Friedman

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Introduction

1Roberta Allen began making and exhibiting her conceptual art more than a half century ago, before she came to author eight books and more than 200 works of short fiction. Indeed, as she explains in my 2021 interview with her, her earliest writing was about her art. Allen had her first solo exhibition of paintings at Galerie 845 in Amsterdam in 1967. Since then her work has been exhibited continually in galleries and museums worldwide, and it is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Cooper-Hewitt, among other notable institutions

2Any work of art, no matter how abstract, spontaneous or irrational, can be described in terms of its conception, meaning the idea that prompted or informed its creation, even if the intention was, like the Dadaists’, to produce nonsense and to reject aestheticism. “Conceptual art,” on the other hand, emphasizes the concept, rather than the art. It is the idea that matters, not the material expression of the idea.

3Ideas find their natural form in words and it is only ideas, Plato taught us, that are enduring. Unlike the material world – including painting, drawing, and sculpture, which are encompassed by the senses – ideas are accessed through reason. The conceptual artist uses words to make us consider the ideas represented by the words. When Marcel Duchamps famously exhibited a urinal as a work of art, he did no more than label it “Fountain.” He was insisting that what makes art is neither the artist’s hand, nor the aesthetic quality of the thing, but the intellectual exchanges it provokes in viewers. Jenny Holzer’s ideas are not mediated by any object; she simply projects her words, or as she calls them, “truisms,” onto buildings or other public spaces: “Men no longer protect you,” she declares, or “Protect me from what I want.”1 Annette Lemieux made a four-and-a-half-by-twelve-foot painting titled “Hell Text” which consists of nothing more than thirteen lines of cursive from a first person narrator describing a scene out of the Holocaust; she is telling us that the hideousness must come directly from the victim, that it’s too intimate for the impersonality of type, that it’s too enormous for the largest page, and most importantly that it’s beyond art’s power of depiction.

4Roberta Allen’s art words are less concerned with external projections than diving into a created image in a way that will steer the viewer toward introspection, to provoke by presenting subjectivity as fact. She does not give us a Duchamp-type ready-made, its meaning contextualized with language, nor does she simply hang words on a wall like, for example, Glenn Lignon’s declaration “I AM A MAN,” or John Baldessari’s “PURE BEAUTY.” Allen’s effects arise from combining text and image, each elucidating the other.

5In a recent series of drawings Allen titled “Mind Matters: An Unscientific Exploration of the Mind,” she offers abstract mappings of the brain, each uniquely altered, each accompanied by an illuminating gloss. The drawings are all executed in gold, which for millenniums of decorative art has had powerful associations with the other-worldly, with the religious side of life, with ideas of serenity and understanding. Although Allen states her intention in using gold was to imbue the drawings with a sense of spirituality, by depicting, however imaginatively, the neural patterns of the physical brain, she has paradoxically, and perhaps unwittingly, achieved the kind of sensuous, body-based quality that Klimt achieved in his gold portraiture.

6The texts accompanying her images employ a common strategy which Allen declares is the same one she’s utilized for more than fifty years: she defines subjective views as facts. In so doing she recognizes the universal bias of perception, judgment, and memory, and tries to provoke the viewer to self-awareness. In this drawing she depicts how “Large thoughts force out small thoughts in the mind,” and it is a quintessential example of how interdependent are her words and images.

Figure 1. Roberta Allen, Large Thoughts Force out Small Thoughts in the Mind, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.

Figure 1. Roberta Allen, Large Thoughts Force out Small Thoughts in the Mind, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.

© Roberta Allen.

7In the following drawing we are presented with “The mind going round and round in opposite directions.” Here Allen depicts the interior of the mind confused by arrows pointing in confoundingly contradictory directions. It is the state we’ve probably all experienced at one time or another, when we are pulled in equally imperative but absolutely incompatible directions – maybe what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

Figure 2. Roberta Allen, The Mind Going Round and Round in Opposite Directions, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.

Figure 2. Roberta Allen, The Mind Going Round and Round in Opposite Directions, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.

© Roberta Allen.

8Arrows and the way they point have a long history in Allen’s ponderings and her artwork. Over the years she has done books and installations using arrows that focused on “direction” and “placement.” It began paradoxically enough with her imagining “Pointless Arrows,” in turn the result of encountering road sign arrows which pointed heavenward to indicate straight ahead. This was back in 1971. She observed, “Lines without arrowheads indicate directional loss or states prior to direction. Arrows represent being as ascent and being as fall.”

9Then in 1976, in a forty-one-part photo/text piece entitled “Pointless Acts”, Allen played with two and three dimensionality, in her words, “by drawing pointless arrows on Photomat photos in which I performed to the rhythm of the camera using prior sketches. Rephotographed photos with lines interact on the same plane. Text defines impossible situations.”Here we see the artist “Avoiding An Attack By 184 Pointless Arrows.”

Figure 3. Roberta Allen. Avoiding the Attack, from the Pointless Acts Installation, 1976, exhibited in Galerie Maier-Hahn, 1977, Dusseldorf, Germany. MINUS SPACE, Brooklyn, New York, 2014.

Figure 3. Roberta Allen. Avoiding the Attack, from the Pointless Acts Installation, 1976, exhibited in Galerie Maier-Hahn, 1977, Dusseldorf, Germany. MINUS SPACE, Brooklyn, New York, 2014.

© Roberta Allen.

10Decades later, in a series of drawings comprised of finely wrought lines and dots that could have been bundles of shorn hair lifted from the salon floor, or a computerized print of an area of cell phone coverage, or maybe neural wiring in the cerebrum, we find that Allen is playing at describing visually “Connections,” including missed and broken ones. In this drawing we learn that the pinched middle of the lines are connections constraining the connections above and below.

Figure 4. Roberta Allen, Connections constraining Connections, from the series Connections, 2018-2019.

Figure 4. Roberta Allen, Connections constraining Connections, from the series Connections, 2018-2019.

© Roberta Allen.

11In a series titled “Thinking About Thoughts,” we find two tangles of fine lines, one black, the other red, one surmounting the other, the tension between them evident, and read that “Lines are thoughts in conflict,” which suggests the endless struggle of “top dog-underdog,” the split that Gestalt sees as endemic to the human personality.

Figure 5. Roberta Allen, Lines of Thought in Conflict, from the series Thinking about Thought, 2014-2016.

Figure 5. Roberta Allen, Lines of Thought in Conflict, from the series Thinking about Thought, 2014-2016.

© Roberta Allen.

12When I asked Allen how she sees the relationship between her writing and her art, and the centrality of each to her life, she replied:

I started writing stories in 1979 whereas I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil my mother told me. Drawing saved me from the insanity of my family. My father was a gambler who was often running from the Mafia. After his death, Mafia goons threatened my life. My father was the sane one compared to my mother. Drawing allowed me to enter my own world so I was far away from them. At first I was a painter. I didn’t start using text in my work till the early ‘70s though I began exhibiting in Europe in the ‘60s. Language is the bridge between my conceptual art and my writing but my voice and occasional humor are present in both. In my art, I explore how text informs or changes our perception of images. I play with possibility. Sometimes I write and make art on the same day.

13Born and raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Allen left home at nineteen to live and work in Europe and has been travelling alone to far-away places ever since. Her travels have inspired several of her books, notably Amazon Dream (City Lights Publisher, 1992), and an encounter with the Shipibo people led her to collect their art. Inspired by their geometric patterns, Allen said, “decades later I created a sculptural city made of wooden parts called, ‘The City of Dreams.’ After Trump’s election, the work became ‘The City of Dying Dreams.”’

Transcript of the video interview with Roberta Allen

14

Interview with Roberta Allen

Creativity was an escape from home

My father was the sane one. And he was a gambler. And he owed quite a lot of money when he died. And he owed the money to the Mafia. Well, they would call my mother and threatened my life, but my mother always screamed at them, “no, he left nothing.” But they would call her every day. And I thought if they were threatening her life, she wouldn't have yelled at them so much.
So, my mother knew nothing about raising a child at all. And she really didn't relate to me.
I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Haskell, telling my mother how much talent I had. And my mother didn't know how to regard that either. And years ago, she told me she equated my doing art with that even a sanitation worker was more important than my making art. So this was not a family where, where my art was certainly not encouraged.
I went to Europe by myself, when I was 19. And so I started painting there. I started out doing figurative drawing. But I soon started doing abstract drawing, and painting. I did biomorphic shapes. And I had my first show in Amsterdam in ‘67.

Pointless arrows

It was in 1971 that I began my arrow and pointless arrow drawings. Lines without arrowheads indicate directional loss or states prior to direction. Arrows represent being as ascent and being as fall. In these works, I combined image and text.
I'll take this out. These were done in a photo-mat. I would go there to Woolworth’s and I had sketches of how I wanted to pose and then after I did the photos, then I would come home and draw the pointless arrows, I didn't know how many pointless arrows I was going to draw. But I like the fact that they were paradoxical, and contradictory, because obviously pointless arrows don't exist in reality.
In nearly all my art since then, text informs or alters the perception of images. I define text as fact, a contradiction which, in these conceptual pieces, has a spiritual dimension but is also humorous. I believe truths live in contradictions.

Writing emerged from art

Writing came much later. And I think that was because I wanted to write more personal things. I started writing in my art. And that changed my art completely.
I was influenced by Kierkegaard, actually. I loved what he did with language. I love the paradoxes and the contradictions. And I think I had already begun pointless arrows. But I know that after I read him, that inspired me.
I had a negation series, which was 30-odd works. They were also - they were using the sign X. I was working with common signs. And that's what these pointless arrows came out of.
This is a book of pointless arrows. And this was the first book I did, and this is 52 parts, of 14 pointless arrows. So I like things that were unverifiable and ambiguous.
In my childhood, I felt so bounded by my mother and grandmother. And so I think that had something to do with using the grid, which is a structure which is very fixed.

Direction, position, and placement

I was really interested in direction, position and placement - which I think is easier to understand from the installations that I did. I started doing floor installations of ascending and descending arrows. And those were all based on a perceptual slant. This is in a pool. And, and this is more complicated because this is a real perceptual slant. So there are actually ascending and descending arrows.
This is a better example. This is from a catalog from a very large installation I did at the Kunstforum, and Lundbaek House, the museum. And this was a many sided room. From each of these four positions would be the ascending and descending arrows. And these were really figured out to the inch. So I knew exactly how many arrows they would be and exactly where they were. What I was interested in was direction, position, and placement, and how this can change.
I did three shows in Europe in three months. And that seemed like too much. I was paid as a service, like in Lundbaek House. I wasn't subsidized. And I was kind of getting tired of doing all of this, of running around Europe, and not being paid for shows. But that's how it was then especially for women.

Connection images

Decades later, through the interplay of text and image, I explore in the Connection drawings visual possibilities for all kinds of connections, including missed and broken ones.
In the drawing series, Thinking About Thought, I create imaginary neural patterns and mappings combined with text to probe our interior worlds and encourage introspection.

Discovery as a writer led to return as an artist

I learned how to write from writing statements about my art. It wasn't that the art was so difficult, but it was very difficult to write about. And I really, I really think of writing as the way that I that I came to writing stories.
There was a director at the Athenaeum in La Jolla, and she had been trying to locate me for a couple of years or so. And she only found online, a story writer. So she only found me because this gallery found me around the same time. And so that kind of got me working again.

Digital works

These are the only digital works that I've done. And I used an obsolete bit-map program to make various 2-dimensional shapes that appear 3-dimensional. Unlike photoshop, each layer of shapes disappeared as a new layer was formed. In each work, I counted the total number of shapes, including those from layers that had disappeared. The total number of shapes which is unverifiable became the title of each print.
So it's kind of a record of what was.

City of dying dreams

On my solo trip to the Amazon, I collected art of the Shipibo people. Inspired by their geometric patterns decades later, I created a sculptural city made of wooden parts called, “the City of Dreams.” After Trump’s election, the work became “the City of Dying Dreams.”

Text explicates image

My most recent drawing series, Mind Matters: An Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, uses the same strategy I have used for 50 years: defining subjective views as facts.
I did probably 300 drawings between 2019 and now. I decided to use gold. Because I wanted some spiritual subtext here, which is contradictory to what most of them say.
“Emotional moments unable to stay within the boundaries of the mind.”
“The mind ascends despite the presence of 13 obstacles.”
What I'm doing, I'm drawing subjective views, and then I define them objectively. That’s how I see it.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Roberta Allen, Large Thoughts Force out Small Thoughts in the Mind, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.
Crédits © Roberta Allen.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/5188/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Figure 2. Roberta Allen, The Mind Going Round and Round in Opposite Directions, from the series Mind Matters, an Unscientific Exploration of the Mind, 2019-2022.
Crédits © Roberta Allen.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/5188/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 69k
Titre Figure 3. Roberta Allen. Avoiding the Attack, from the Pointless Acts Installation, 1976, exhibited in Galerie Maier-Hahn, 1977, Dusseldorf, Germany. MINUS SPACE, Brooklyn, New York, 2014.
Crédits © Roberta Allen.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/5188/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 14k
Titre Figure 4. Roberta Allen, Connections constraining Connections, from the series Connections, 2018-2019.
Crédits © Roberta Allen.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/5188/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Titre Figure 5. Roberta Allen, Lines of Thought in Conflict, from the series Thinking about Thought, 2014-2016.
Crédits © Roberta Allen.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/docannexe/image/5188/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
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Référence électronique

Donald Friedman, « Art and Words are One »Interfaces [En ligne], 47 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2022, consulté le 29 septembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/interfaces/5188 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/interfaces.5188

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Auteur

Donald Friedman

Donald Friedman, a novelist, essayist, sometime lawyer, but never a scholar, somehow produced the internationally acclaimed The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers. That book brought together the visual art of more than 200 of the world’s great writers. To celebrate its publication, he planned a modest exhibition of writer-art which, with the assistance of John Wronoski, antiquarian bookseller and art dealer, was enlarged to include dozens of poets and writers somehow omitted from the book, and became a museum-scale show (https://donaldfriedman.com/books/the-writers-brush-the-exhibition/). Along the way to the book and the exhibition, Friedman interviewed a number of writer-artists on camera. Excerpts of those interviews are being posted on Interfaces’ website, accompanied by transcripts and introductions. For Interfaces contributors and friends interested in acquiring copies of The Writer’s Brush direct from the author at a deep discount, please contact him through his website, https://donaldfriedman.com/books/the-writers-brush/

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